Virginia’s Constitution Needs Improving

 

By David Swanson.

 

Virginia’s Constitution is three times as long as the U.S. Constitution (which is notably lacking any serious sections on oyster beds). Virginia’s Constitution has also been updated at least three times as much as the U.S. Constitution. But it is now long overdue.

The U.S. Constitution has been updated with 27 amendments and 0 serious revisions through conventions. Virginia’s Constitution has been amended many times including through five Constitutional conventions, held in 1830, 1851, 1864, 1870, and 1902. From 1776 to 1902 that’s one convention every 25 years. Now there hasn’t been one for 114 years.

I don’t want to revise the Virginia Constitution just for the heck of it, but because it is badly needed. There is much in the Virginia Constitution that needn’t be there at all, but that can be to our advantage if it facilitates opening the whole thing to desirable improvements. Some improvements are desirable because of the failure of the federal government to make them.

I wrote to my state legislators and governor asking that Virginia make voter registration automatic, the way some states have done. I was told that in Virginia this would require amending the Constitution. Unlike many other states, Virginia details voter registration processes in its Constitution. (One hopes it’s unnecessary to recall the ugly reasons why.) I’d amend the Constitution to make voter registration automatic, to delete the disenfranchisement of felons, and to delete the language permitting the creation of literacy tests for voting.

I’d delete a lot else that need not be enshrined in a Constitution, but I’d also add a lot that’s missing on the topic of voting rights and in many other areas.

Some general updates are obvious and easy: Add several missing categories to the forbidden reasons for discrimination (or take out the existing list and ban all discrimination). Change “men” to “people.” Delete the section creating marriage bigotry. Delete all promotion of religion from various sections including the section supposedly banning the establishment of religion.

But major revisions are in order as well. Look at this list of protected rights: “enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”

Virginia executes people. One in 46 adults in Virginia is in prison, jail, parole, or probation. So much for life and liberty. Many Virginians have little or no means of acquiring and possessing property. And it’s hard to say we can obtain happiness and safety with environmental damage and danger as well as gun violence escalating. These existing elements of the Constitution need enactment and enforcement. Or they need stricter commitment in a revised Constitution. Similarly, the ban on standing armies isn’t sufficient to prevent the existence of the Virginia National Guard, and the ban on taking private property without compensation isn’t protecting anyone from oil pipelines or climate destruction or rising sea level.

But mostly the problem is the rights that are missing entirely or vaguely stated later in the Constitution. The U.S. approach of providing a safety net to the least well off simply is not working. The least well off don’t have political power. What works in other countries is to provide benefits to everyone, which almost everyone then supports. We need the right to a free top-quality education free of for-profit corruption and ridiculous tests from preschool through college. We need the right to free, bureaucracy-free, insurance-company-free, preventive universal single-payer healthcare. We need the right to a basic income for all. We need the right to a healthy and sustainable environment. The environment needs the right to health and sustainability. (Yes, giving rights to the environment makes at least as much sense as giving them to corporations — which should be explicitly barred — and is being done in modern Constitutions.)

The Virginia Constitution now reads: “Further, it shall be the Commonwealth’s policy to protect its atmosphere, lands, and waters from pollution, impairment, or destruction, for the benefit, enjoyment, and general welfare of the people of the Commonwealth.” But, of course, it is not the Commonwealth’s policy to do any such thing. This has to be made enforceable. Or it has to be enforced.

While the United States is the one nation on earth that has not joined the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Virginia should include the content of that treaty in its Constitution. It should do the same with the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It should also join the world in banning land mines, cluster bombs, depleted uranium, and nuclear weapons, and in establishing rights of migrant workers.

The section of the Virginia Constitution on the rights of the accused needs updating. There should be a right to videotape of all interrogations. There should be a right to competent legal representation. There should be a right not to be killed. There should be a ban on militarizing police and on the use of weaponized drones, as well as on the use in court of any evidence obtained by surveillance drones.

When it comes to election reforms, I would propose something like this:

The judiciary shall not construe the spending of money to influence elections to be protected free speech.

All elections for Governor and members of the Senate and General Assembly shall be entirely publicly financed. No political contributions shall be permitted to any federal candidate, from any other source, including the candidate. No political expenditures shall be permitted in support of any candidate, or in opposition to any candidate, from any other source, including the candidate. The legislature shall, by statute, provide limitations on the amounts and timing of the expenditures of such public funds and provide criminal penalties for any violation of this section.

State and local governments shall regulate, limit, or prohibit contributions and expenditures, including a candidate’s own contributions and expenditures, for the purpose of influencing in any way the election of any candidate for state or local public office or any state or local ballot measure.

Citizens will be automatically registered to vote upon reaching the age of 18 or upon becoming citizens at an age above 18, and the right to vote shall not be taken away from them.

Votes shall be recorded on paper ballots, which shall be publicly counted at the polling place and reported to a central counting location, with the process repeated as many times as required to allow voters to make use of ranked-choice (instant runoff) voting.

Election day shall be a state holiday.

During a designated campaign period of no longer than six months, free air time shall be provided in equal measure to all candidates for state office on state or local television and radio stations, provided that each candidate has, during the previous year, received the supporting signatures of at least five percent of their potential voting-age constituents.

The same supporting signatures shall also place the candidate’s name on the ballot and require their invitation to participate in any public debate among the candidates for the same office.

The Virginia Constitution now states: “That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people, that magistrates are their trustees and servants, and at all times amenable to them.”

I would give this concrete form in a right to create and vote on public initiatives to determine state policy, including the creation of Constitutional conventions and amendments.

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